Conservatives To Mitt Romney: 'More Vision, Please!'

WASHINGTON - The chorus of voices knocking Mitt Romney for running an "anybody but Obama" campaign and calling on him to do more continues to grow louder.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Former Bush White House policy adviser Yuval Levin. The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan. The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol. National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru. The New York Times' David Brooks. Politico's Jonathan Martin. Slate's John Dickerson. The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin. And Noonan again.

All of these people -- either conservative supporters or nonpartisan, credible voices in the media -- have said Romney is either failing to provide a compelling vision for his candidacy or failing to lay out sufficient detail to explain how he would govern if elected president.

Romney has often, in fact, relied on vague and reassuring promises about what his presidency would look like. On Tuesday, he guaranteed an "economic resurgence" in the U.S. if he's elected.

"You're going to see this economy take off," he told supporters at a New Jersey fundraiser. "And I say that because I know what I'm going to do, and I know what kind of impact it will have."

But Romney's comment had a "trust me" tone to it that plays into the hands of those who say he has not offered enough specifics. In his stump speech he runs through several policy areas, and he has offered detailed plans on several issues. But he has taken lumps for not commenting on what he'd do regarding immigration, for not saying what tax loopholes he would close or which government agencies he might eliminate, and for being fuzzy on foreign policy and financial regulation.

On the other hand, it's no small matter that he is even talking at all, for example, about eliminating entire government agencies.

Notably, Romney has not publicly addressed the critiques and complaints that he is running a small and soulless campaign.

But in a recent interview, Romney's senior economic adviser, Glenn Hubbard, argued that Romney has taken significant political risks in some of the promises he's made.

"He's given some pretty uncomfortable details for most politicians," Hubbard told HuffPost. "For example, he said he'd block-grant the Medicaid program. I don't think that's a crowd pleaser. So he's been fairly specific."

Hubbard focused largely on spending, and said Romney's promise to reduce government expenditures to 20 percent of the gross domestic product was the key to cutting back.

"It's not that difficult to get government spending back to 20 percent of GDP," Hubbard said. "That's what we had before the crisis. Harder, politically, is the entitlements. And there again he's been specific in both the Social Security and Medicare."

Hubbard acknowledged that "if you fight cut by cut," getting government spending back to 20 percent of GDP (from its current level of 24 percent) would be much harder.

"But if you make the macro argument that if we can't get government spending back down, we will have to raise taxes, and we'd have to raise taxes on everyone ... you can have the discussion and force the cuts," he said.

Hubbard said he was convinced that Romney has the leadership abilities necessary to put the brakes on government spending and lead a revamp of Medicare and Social Security.

"He is a very clear analytical thinker and very good at expositing what a problem is," Hubbard said. "He's got policies, but this isn't even about policies. This is more like diagnosis, not medicine. Just to tell the American people, can we all agree that this is the problem? And then President Obama maybe will fix it this way, and Governor Romney will fix it this way. But we've got to get people focused at least on the size of the problem. Then we can fight about what to do about it."

But Hubbard's own forecast has failed to materialize so far.

Romney has not often talked in a way that contrasts his plan for spending and entitlements with the president's, even though he and Obama do have starkly different positions. Romney has instead focused on Obama's health care law and other policies that are generally unpopular, and blamed Obama and his policies for making a severe recession worse and for hampering the nation's economic recovery.

This is the core of Romney's strategy: avoid the spotlight and keep it on Obama. The calculation is that the stagnant economy and fears of further trouble will drive voters away from the president and to Romney's side. Even the Romney campaign's response to HuffPost on the question of Romney's candidacy followed a simple formula: step one, talk about the economy, and step two, wallop Obama.

Step one: "The focus of this campaign is getting the economy back on track and we’ve released a 160-page guide for how Gov. Romney would do just that," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an email.

Step two: "We are still waiting for a single plan or new idea from President Obama that would help the economy," she wrote.

John Weaver, a Republican political consultant who managed former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's presidential campaign, said Romney is making a mistake in not giving independent voters more reason to support him.

"He needs to have some meat to the bones in order to give people the comfort factor to vote for him," Weaver said. "Because at the end of the day, if this is still a close election in late October, the president is the default guy because they know him, and they do like him. They like him personally. They don't like Mitt Romney personally. So they gotta give him some other reasons to support him."

"Maybe he's principled. Maybe they're going to say, 'Well we don't really care for him but we know where he's going to take us,'" Weaver said. "Right now it's, 'We like the president. We're unhappy with the economy, versus a guy we don't really like who's not saying anything but just betting on the economy staying bad.' I don't think that's a winning bet."

Romney has done enough, however, to make himself a moving target. He has offered selective details that allow him to defend himself on the policy critique, even as he has avoided other more politically troublesome promises.

As for articulating a clear vision, Romney has in fact tried -- but he's just not very good at it. It does not come at all naturally to him.

The critical time for vision-casting, however, is usually the party convention in August. And the three presidential debates in the fall will be key for both Romney and Obama in their attempts to win undecided voters over to their side.

There's still a good chunk of time left before the campaign hits the fourth quarter.

"We have five lifetimes between now and November," Weaver said. "I don't think you can change your image as likable or unlikable, but you can become a guy that the country says, 'Well, you know, he's not my cup of tea but we're in a bad economy and at least he's going to take us X.'"

"And right now, they don't have that. And there's no reason not to."



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